I was thinking about the future of the industry the other day. Two things made me of a mind to cultivate such fields of thought. First, we were screening the documentary, “Comic Book Confidential,” in our weekly Assistant Editors’ Workshop, and the segments on the industry’s humble beginnings got me thinking about how it’s changed through the years. The second thing was at our weekly Editors’ Meeting, special projects editor Bob Budiansky reported what he learned at the Curtis Circulation Co. State of the Industry presentation about trends in the magazine business in general.
Before I go any further, let me make the distinction between the terms “comics medium” and “comics industry.” The medium of comics is the art form which combines words and pictures in a certain sequential fashion to tell a story. The industry is the business of getting that art form to the reading public. What I think may be the future of the medium may be an interesting topic for another column, but what I’m going to talk about this time is the future of the industry.
Let me start on the “Comic Book Confidential” tangent. What struck me about the so-called Golden Age of the comics industry is how the publishers were dependent upon studios of artists and writers to turn out product. Not that all the early comic book strips were group efforts – there were individuals turning out highly individualized material, no matter what studio they physically worked at. But my impression of this long-gone day is that most publishers were supplied by folks working in New York art studios like that of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby (Captain America’s co-creators), and it was the head of the studio that took on the assignments, not individuals in that studio working independently. (There may well have been lots of exceptions – it was way before my time.)
Eventually, some of the publishers that remained in business gathered their own writing and art staffs, and in effect, created their own in-house studios. The renowned EC Comics of the 1950s did all their writing in-house, for instance. Toward the end of the 60s, the modern era of freelancers working out of their own homes became the prevailing standard for the industry. Again, this is not to say that there weren’t freelance artists working out of their own homes in the 40s and 50s, it’s just that they were once the exception. By the 70s, whatever in-house art departments the publishers had were simply design and art correction departments. The day when a comic strip was written, penciled, inked, lettered, and colored – all in the same room – was no more.
So it got me thinking, where can the industry – the process and methods of producing the art form – go from here? Even in my 12 years as a professional Marvel minion, I’ve seen the way this company, the leader in the field, has grown and evolved significantly. Why, when I started at Marvel in 1978 (read this sentence in a crotchety old man’s voice), there was an Editor in Chief, three Editors, and four Assistants (I was the odd man out) – and the eight of us were the entire editorial staff! (At the time there were also four freelance “Writer-Editors” but they weren’t really on staff.) Now, in 1990, there’s an Editor in Chief, and Executive Editor/Marvel (me), an Executive Editor/Epic, fourteen Editors, one Managing Editor, fourteen Assistant Editors, and one Editorial Assistant. Total: 33! That means our staff size has quadrupled in 12 years. Do we put out four times the amount of product we did in 1978? Not quite. The editors of today actually have considerably reduced workloads compared to then, enabling them to actually pay some attention to each of the books they’re doing.
Okay, that’s just Marvel. How abut the other publishers that comprise “the industry?” Well, there aren’t as many as there were in the 1940s, that’s for sure. But there are more than there were in the 1950s. The 1980s brought a plethora of “independent” publishers (a term which I guess means “independent” of the usual newsstand distributors for comics, distributing their books to direct outlets on a non-returnable basis only), some of which have fallen on hard times, other of which have rethought their marketing strategies in order not to go head-to-head with “the majors” (i.e., non-independents) with similarly formatted product. But at this writing there are no less than two new “non-independent” companies about to launch, whose impact remains to be seen. In general, the industry seems to be in a growth period right now, and is in pretty healthy shape for the immediate future. But size and health alone do not a future of the industry make. What I’m trying to scope out is –
– Oh on, what’s this? Hmm. It’s Jim Salicrup, my beloved MARVEL AGE MAGAZINE editor, which a sledgehammer slung over his shoulder. Whimsical Jim(sical) told me that if I ever wrote a column that took up two pages again (like, say, last month’s), he’d come over to my house and stomp my fingers as the skid across the computer keyboard like baby snakes doing St. Vitus’s dance. Yes, Jim, I know, I don’t get paid by the word but a flat rate per column. Sure, I’d be happy to end it here. Folks, next month I’ll continue my musing on the future of our industry, sledgehammer willing.